Introduction

By 1000 C.E. much of Europe and the mediterranean enjoyed comparative freedom from war and chaos. Consequently, trade and human migrations began taking place. The earliest entrepreneurial activities consisted of peddlers who went from village to village peddling their wares. In larger communities such as the Italian sea ports of Venice and Genoa trade in luxury goods from Asia and Asia Minor prompted a higher level of sophistication in terms of banking, contracts and knowledge about particular commodities. The rise of commerce would have a marked impact on medieval society--feudalism would make way for the emergence of capitalism and urban life. Where feudal lords once ruled over populations of serfs and peasants, newly rich merchants now emerged to form a powerful and affluent class that did not take kindly to the authority of either the nobility or the church. Bolstered by monetary profits, this newly emerging class was able increasingly to essentially buy townships or boroughs from the nobility in the form of fixed annual taxes, thereby securing the right to govern these townships by themselves.

As free men, the merchant families gradually formed dynasties of their own. Many of the ruling clans who had roots in commerce became dominant political forces in townships and boroughs. Contingently, new institutions which protected the rights of tradesmen, and political infrastructures that allowed active participation in local civic governance were created during this period. As populations shifted into urban areas, new professions around mercantile activities were created. Clerks, scribes, accountants, and bankers were all new lines of work requiring literacy and numeracy. The education of common people was thus a task that had to be undertaken on a scale that had not hitherto been possible. In feudal society, most people,including many of the nobility, were generally illiterate, and education was mainly for the clergy.

The acquisition of wealth and political power by the new merchant class was also paralled by the proliferation of art and architecture. Wealthy scions of mercantile clans sponsored artists, the building of cathedrals, and charitable institutions such as hospitals, and guildhalls. One of the chief legacies of mercantilism was the creation of institutions of higher learning that would come to be known as universities.

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